REVIEW DATE: 06 Aug 2008
Potential buyers might need to forget what they think they know about the Mercedes A Class. Those who haven't tried the latest second generation version may find that it re-writes the established class rules. Andy Enright reports on the A150 version
By all accepted wisdom, the A150 should be the least exciting car Mercedes make. Drawing on just 95bhp, Mercedes' A150 isn't exactly a ripsnorter, its 1.5-litre engine being modesty personified. Trouble is, the old A-Class could be a little too exciting for its own good at times. This second generation model might not set your trousers on fire, but it's a better car in virtually every respect. Buying a base model Mercedes can be an exercise in canny consumption.
Prices start from just £14,365 for the three-door A150 with the five-door variant pitching in at £15,115. Compared to an entry level BMW 1 Series, this is bargain basement stuff and comparable in many respects to something far more mainstream such as a 1.6-litre Ford Focus. If you're an enthusiast driver, both of these options may well be preferable to the baby Merc, but there are a great many prospective purchasers who couldn't give a monkey's about heel and toe downchanges or lift off oversteer. For them, the packaging and badge cachet will be more than enough to seal the deal.
The Mercedes A-Class remains instantly recognisable in its latest form but anyone looking to tell the original second generation car apart from this facelifted model has a far tougher task on. For the record, the usual facelift suspects of light clusters, grille and bumpers have been tweaked but we'd be lying if we said that the alterations are groundbreaking. Far more important is what has gone on under the surface.
An option which many owners will want to consider is the BlueEFFICIENCY package. This runs to aerodynamic improvements to the radiator grille and a ride height lowered by 10mm that will also reduce drag. There's a generator management system that charges the battery with energy that would otherwise have been lost on the engine overrun and, the highlight, an ECO stop/start function that turns off the engine when the petrol A-Classes are stationary. An A150 with the BlueEFFICIENCY modifications can return 48.7mpg (9% better than the standard car) and emits just 139g/km of CO2.
"Buying a base model Mercedes can be an exercise in canny consumption"
Under the bonnet, the A150's 8v engine isn't the first or last word in powerplant technology but it is reliable and boasts surprisingly good torque, its modest power delivered to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. If you're planning on using the car largely in city traffic, it could well be worthwhile specifying the Autotronic continuously variable automatic transmission. This is the first transmission from Mercedes to operate on this principle in which the ratios are changed continuously by means of a pulley-wheel variator and a steel thrust belt.
As a result, the A-Class is able to accelerate with no interruption of power and the engine reaches its maximum output more quickly than with a conventional automatic transmission. The Autotronic gearbox also excels in terms of ride comfort and low noise levels. It comes complete with a choice of transmission modes - 'S' for 'standard' in which the gearbox can recognise and learn different driving styles, 'C' for 'comfort' for lower revs, smoother acceleration and lower fuel consumption; and a 'manual' mode where the entire ratio range is split into seven virtual gears that can be selected by nudging the gear lever left or right.
Performance with Autotronic still can't quite match that with the conventional stick shift, although it's not too far off and many will consider it an adequate trade-off to save their clutch leg in stop/start traffic. The manual A150 will hit 60mph in 12.3 seconds and the Autotronic version will require 13.2 seconds. Both cars will see a 109mph top speed but in terms of economy, it's the manual car that again excels. Score one for the cerebral cortex then, with 45.6 mpg for a manual up against 42.8mpg for the CVT. It's the same story when it comes to emissions, the manual car churning out 148g/km of carbon dioxide and the Autotronic version pumping out a still respectable 157g/km.
The latest generation car may be built on an all-new platform but structural features such as the innovative sandwich floor have been carried over from the old MK1 A-Class. If you owned one of those, drop inside and you'll instantly appreciate the gulf in quality between this car and that one. The dashboard looks like a scaled down version of the E-Class fascia - think premium not Palitoy - and has been developed with the help of a shiny Berlin customer clinic where everything from materials to switch feel to door slam and indicator sounds have been exhaustively tested.
Pry back the aerodynamic underfloor spoiler and a parabolic axle is evident. This curved tube joins the rear wheels and is mounted to a central pivot point with a linkage providing lateral guidance. It's not a new idea but Mercedes have refined the system so that it's a good deal more tuneable than the outgoing trailing arm set-up. What is new is their adaptive damping system. Most such systems use electronics to alter the characteristics of the dampers but engineers at Daimler Chrysler have developed a valve that allows the oil inside them to move freely when the car negotiates small surface irregularities, thus giving a composed ride, but when more is asked of the damper, the valve closes, firming up the ride during enthusiastic cornering. The power steering does rely on electronic trickery, a motor replacing the old pump system. As you might well expect, the A-Class still comes complete with a legion of electronic safety systems.
The A150 could be the quiet success of the A Class range. While the torquey CDI diesel variants will attract more attention, the A150 could inconspicuously plunder a whole heap of sales from mainstream rivals. It's been a long time coming but the A Class could well have arrived.
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